Jorge Luis Borges writes in “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,”
For many years, in books now happily forgotten, I tried to copy down the flavor, the essence of the outlying suburbs of Buenos Aires. Of course, I abounded in local words; I did not omit such words as cuchilleros, milonga, tapia and others, and thus I wrote those forgettable and forgotten books. Then, about a year ago, I wrote a story called “Death and the Compass,” which is a kind of nightmare, a nightmare in which there are elements of Buenos Aires, deformed by the horror of the nightmare. […] There I think of the Paseo Colón and call it rue de Toulon; I think of the country houses of Adrogue and call them Triste-leRoy; when this story was published, my friends told me that at last they had found in what I wrote the flavor of the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Precisely because I had not set out to find that flavor, because I had abandoned myself to a dream, I was able to accomplish, after so many years, what I had previously sought in vain.
Born eight months after his fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Arlt also dedicated his brief career to capturing “the flavor” and “the essence” of Buenos Aires. Borges evoked the city by abandoning himself “to a dream,” while Arlt caught the city by zealously cataloging each cuchillero, milonga, and tapia. Arlt’s Buenos Aires is less mythic and grimier than Borges’s, but rendered with the same fidelity.
Like Borges, Arlt had European roots, which would frame his experience of Buenos Aires. Unlike Borges, though, Arlt was born to uneducated German immigrants who were unable to speak Spanish and unwilling to inaugurate Roberto into the German language and traditions. Argentina in the early 1900s was a global economic power, and its capital was undergoing brisk cultural and economic transformation. The country’s unassimilated immigrant population was almost as large as its citizen population. It was a unique literary crossroads as well. Newspapers weekly ran translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tales. Immigrants established writers like Dostoyevsky as central to the canon of the Buenos Aires elites. The city was a mix of opportunity and despair.
Arlt had a brief, failed career as an inventor before turning, in his late twenties, to writing. He published The Seven Madmen, a brilliant novel about the crack-up of a man, a city, and a country. The novel opens with Erdosain being fired for stealing from his employer. His wife leaves him. Desperate to reimburse his employer, he meets with the Astrologer, a small-time gangster with messianic ambitions. Recruiting Erdosain into his schemes, the Astrologer plans to carry out a coup against the Argentine government by kidnapping Erdosain’s rival for his wife’s affections. Then, the Astrologer reasons, he will claim his place in the new political vanguard:
Industry. We need gold to capture men’s imaginations. Just as in the past there were the mysticisms of religion and chivalry, so now we have to make industry mystical. To show people it’s just as noble to be in charge of a blast furnace as it was in the past to discover a continent.
The novel had mixed success. Arlt was already writing a regular column for the Buenos Aires El Mundo. With social change came a general sense of dislocation, which he explored in The Seven Madmen and his columns. In one 1934 column, ‘‘Chilenizacion de la Patagonia,” Arlt described the frailty of “Argentineness” and the “nationlessness” of Patagonia.
More often, in his fiction and columns, Arlt’s attention fell on the seedier corners of the city. That fit with El Mundo’s more colloquial, earthy tone. His topics ranged from general squalor to art; the tone is mostly genial, sometimes raw. In his column, he builds his arguments in a deeply idiosyncratic way. Writing about a hospital caretaker who hanged himself, Arlt expands on artistic representations of madness, concluding: “The illogical and absurd become so familiar to him that his world will not be the one of apparently normal men, but instead the other one, that of madmen.” Subsequently, “the madness that once caused him such terror will be pleasant.”
Taking The Seven Madmen as documentary evidence, 1920s Buenos Aires was overrun with pathological but small-time crooks. In Spaces of Madness: Insane Asylums in Argentine Literature, Eunice Rojas discusses how, in the mid-1840s, government cuts left “many of the nation’s insane wandering the streets.” Rojas points out that Arlt anticipates the significance of the insane asylum in Argentine writing—as in Horacio Quiroga’s “The Tongue,” Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, and Alfredo Bioy Casares’s Asleep in the Sun.
Erdosain, too imagines the universe is becoming less intelligible. At one point he thinks, “Does the penal code provide for the punishment of a murderous god? What would the judge say if he answered him: ‘I sin because I have a god inside me?’” Observing other men in a station, he thinks:
What on earth is he doing here? Erdosain blinks one eye, aware he is cheating on God, playing out the comedy of someone unable to avoid God’s curse on him. Yet now and again flashes of darkness pass before his eyes, and a kind of dull intoxication takes hold of his senses.
The Seven Madmen is steeped in Buenos Aires’s cafes, streets, factories, and mental asylums. But it also has a distinct intellectual omnivorousness. The Brothers Karamazov is clearly a touchstone for The Seven Madmen, particularly the seriocomic way cultish personalities are held up as models of imagination and as objects of ridicule. There are also Döblin-esque pulpy, fatalistic touches that make The Seven Madmen complementary to Berlin Alexanderplatz. (They were published in the same year, 1929.) But The Seven Madmen, with its kamikaze plots and frenetic characters, is a singular riotous pleasure.
John Yargo is a writer and teacher living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Follow him @GiveUsThisNada.